In “My Skinny Sister,” an eating-disorder drama seen through the eyes of the youngest member of a dysfunctional family, debuting helmer-writer Sanna Lenken brings some humor and charm to a difficult issue before ultimately spiraling into moralistic Afterschool Special territory. Multiple kudos — including a Crystal Bear from Berlin’s youth jury, a special mention from the international jury, and the audience award for best Nordic film at Gothenburg — ensure further fest travel, with Euro broadcast sales likely.
Overly precocious, tubby tween Stella (an impressive debut by newcomer Rebecka Josephson, the granddaughter of famed Bergman thesp Erland Josephson) is on the cusp of adolescence and eager to move forward into a sexualized world. She idolizes, not without some jealousy, her gorgeous older sister, Katja (pop singer, TV presenter and actress Amy Deasismont, aka Amy Diamond), a talented competitive ice skater who seems to suck up most of the limited attention of their parents.
In between writing erotic poetry about Katja’s German coach Jacob (Maxim Mehmet), on whom she harbors a not-so-secret crush, and trying to impress classmates with her sophisticated tastes, Stella notices that the painfully driven Katja doesn’t seem as happy as she once did. Although their over-scheduled parents don’t seem aware of it, Katja trains for hours on end — on the ice and off — and is obsessively finicky in her eating habits. When Katja faints during a workout, Stella is drawn into her sister’s world of manipulation and lies.
Telling the story from Stella’s p.o.v. adds some fresh situations to the standard eating-disorder narrative, including a moral quandary for the younger girl: To whom does she most owe her loyalty? And when should personal promises be trumped by the possibility of personal harm? Unfortunately, this approach also gives Katja short shrift, dramatically speaking.
While Katja starts out as equally interesting character, viewers don’t really get a grip on the reasons for her problem. Given the time that Lenken spends on establishing the ice-skating element of the story, it would have been more effective and memorable to tie her eating disorder to that. Moreover, it’s a bit confusing that at first it seems that Katja is a bulimic, but later she appears to be an anorexic.
Lenken, who was anorexic as a teen, has already made a prize-winning short about eating disorders from the p.o.v. of the sufferers, called “Eating Lunch” (2013), so perhaps she was ready for a different approach. Still, given the body-shape differences between Stella and Katja, one might have expected more of a discussion of how difficult it is for girls to live up to the ideals and expectations of today’s society, and how unpleasant it is to be judged for the way you look and not for who you are.
Still, Lenken excels at establishing a realistic relationship between Stella and Katja, and the actresses share good chemistry as well as a certain resemblance. The parents are less nuanced, starting out as vague, distant, ultra-understanding figures, then turning into shrill control freaks as they try to handle Katja’s problem themselves during a painful week at the family cabin.
Dynamic and finely textured lensing from German d.p. Moritz Schultheiss (“Nothing Bad Can Happen”) leads the attractive craft package.